Skip to main content

From The Lens: Perspective

Click to tweet this article to your friends and followers!

It’s no secret that I’m not the most socially outgoing person, so I’m not the type of New Yorker who knows all his neighbors. This is not because I don’t want to be friendly though; I'm just always in such a hurry!

There are brief seconds where I might smile and nod at people as I quickly speed-walk down the sidewalk as if escaping an avalanche behind me. New York just has a natural way of doing that to you.

One time I finally talked to my next door neighbor, after years of living beside him, he confirmed my suspicion that everyone must think I’m a man of mystery.

“You sure go on a lot of trips,” he curiously said to me.

I was at first confused by this... My dream is to be able to go on a lot of trips, however, I am not living that dream as of yet. I thought somehow he must be seeing into a parallel universe where I’m living my extravagant fantasies of traveling the world!

However, with further explanation I realized he was referring to my constant trafficking of large bags and cases which he had assumed were my luggage. In reality, they are just filled with pounds of heavy film equipment.

Since then, I’ve often wondered what my other neighbors must think of me. I can often be seen with large gun cases, sand bags, metal stands and styrofoam boards. I’m actually surprised that I’m not questioned by the police more often.

On a broader scale, I sometimes like to imagine how gigantic and complexly interwoven the population of New York City is. To think that there are so many perspectives around me, while I may be perceived as a man who travels the world by my next door neighbor, to many others I’m nothing but a passing blur as they drive by.

NYC - City Lights

This type of thinking not only makes me feel small and insignificant, but also I find it a very important influence in filmmaking.

To me, filmmaking is very much about perspective, and it starts with what the screenwriter has laid out for their audience.

I place a lot of importance on a film’s perspective because it can establish the audience’s relationship to the story. Should the audience feel as though they are omniscient observers who are unaffected by what happens? If so, the screenplay might float between many characters without any real attachments to them. More often, though, cinema seeks to hook an audience, to make them feel as though they are participating directly with a few specific characters.

It also seems to establish a form of unity or control for the film as a whole. If you know the perspective of your film is through the experience of a little girl, then sticking with that perspective throughout will sort of ground you to a set of rules to follow, instead of roaming wild and limitless with your ideas.

When I break down a film as a director of photography, I like to use that concept of perspective to decide how I should approach each scene.

This can have a large effect on camera angles. For instance, in Spielberg’s E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, the shots were designed to be slightly low angle most of the time. The majority of the film was a child’s point of view, and I think a large part of why this movie is so easy to empathize with is because the cinematography put us in that child’s mindset.

Choosing angles that focus on your central characters’ unique experience in the world can allow the audience to feel more connected to them.

Try choosing angles based on what they see. For instance as a character enters a room, you might not want to reveal it until the character on screen has seen it, so your audience will be affected by it as your character is-- forming that natural emotional connection.

Lens choice can also be affected by perspective. In the highly respected film Amélie, wide angle lenses seem to perfectly represent her very perceptive character. She is extremely observant, curious, and openly fascinated by the world. A wide lens, among other cinematographic choices allows the audience to experience her unique view of the world.

Different lenses compress space in different ways which can accentuate certain qualities of a space, or a character. As is the case with Amélie, a wide lens can add a massive amount of depth to even the smallest of locations. The dynamics of a wide lens can intensify whatever the situation is.

Telephoto lenses have the tendency to compress space, sometimes to the point where even the largest locations might seem claustrophobic.

Choosing the appropriate lens to represent the mood of the characters we're following will pull the audience in to feel the emotional twists and turns of the story.

What about the tone of the film? For instance, Forrest Gump would probably look and feel entirely different from Lieutenant Dan's point of view. Instead of a soft and whimsical visual aesthetic, we might find that Lt. Dan tells the dark story of a depressing time where a complete goof ball found him peace.

There is a lot that can be done to establish the tone of a film, through lighting, color schemes, shot pacing, and more. By determining who is telling the story, we can determine how we should feel about the world we're in. This in turn pinpoints the cinematographic techniques necessary to provoke those emotions in the audience.

Thinking about the perspective of your film could really help guide you in your decision making, from your writing process, up until its final color grading. It’s a concept that could be considered by all the departments of your production, because I believe it can essentially influence everything.

The Ultimate Camera and Lens Kit
: DVD set where Oscar and Emmy-Nominated cinematographers demystify the camera and lens, unlocking the most powerful tool in the cinematographer’s toolbox.